When I told friends and family that we planned to relax for a spell on some of Germany’s beaches, the responses ranged from “Why?” to “Germany has a coast?” It seemed that the part of Germany just below Denmark, with coasts along both the North and Baltic seas, was terra incognita.
This region was once Viking territory, as evidenced by the extensive ruins of the large Nordic port of Hedeby, near Schleswig, and in medieval times, it was the heart of the Hanseatic League. Emperor Charles IV named the Baltic port of Lübeck one of the five glories of the Holy Roman Empire, along with Venice, Florence, Pisa and Rome. In the 19th century, northern European nobility relaxed by the sea at resort towns such as Heiligendamm and Travemünde, building grand villas, hotels and casinos. In recent years, the coast has become something of a gourmet destination as well, earning quite a few Michelin stars. Germans flock there in the summer. But for an American traveler, could a Baltic resort possibly be worthwhile? I can’t deny that I felt skeptical.
It did not take long, however, for me to fall in love with this relatively unknown stretch of Germany. Lübeck emerged from World War II far more intact than Hamburg, and it remains one of Europe’s most impressive and extensive medieval cities. Old farms form a softly beautiful patchwork in the unspoiled countryside, and the beaches look transplanted from the 19th century. The most easily accessible stretches of sand are dotted with that charming German invention, the Strandkorb (“beach basket”), a hooded chair for two originally made from wicker, with cushions, pullout ottomans and folding shelves to hold drinks, among other features. Few beaches anywhere in the world look more civilized. And the fresh seafood, notably the turbot and the tiny sweet shrimp, is an unfailing delight.
I booked stays at two properties near the Baltic coast of Schleswig-Holstein, each occupying a former aristocratic estate. The first, Ole Liese, was simple, pretty and relatively inexpensive, with a superb bistro and an intimate Michelin-starred restaurant. Our wood-floored suite in the old dairy (the château itself is a private residence) was cheerful and bright, done in cream and red, with a spacious living room, private garden patio and a firm king bed. But the 20-room hotel is suitable only for relatively self-sufficient travelers. Our greeting at the front desk was friendly but brisk, and we received no offer of assistance with our luggage. Accommodations have no telephones — guests are expected to use their cell phones to contact the front desk — and slow Wi-Fi is available only in public spaces, not guest rooms. Service, too, was sometimes less than accommodating. When I emailed to request a tour of the property’s highly regarded stud, the front desk declined, noting that it was currently empty. But when I walked past and peeked in the windows, I saw several horses and a couple of trainers.
The price; the fine restaurants, notably the superb Restaurant Ole Liese Wirtschaft bistro; the tranquil pastoral setting; the bright accommodations.
The lack of in-room phones and Wi-Fi; the occasionally unhelpful service.
Some of the buildings of the estate contain upscale boutiques and appealing art galleries; the tower behind the nearby Forsthaus Hessenstein affords panoramic views of the countryside and the Baltic: Bring one €1 coin per person to enter.
Better to visit the upscale boutiques and fine restaurants of Ole Liese from the Weissenhaus Grand Village Resort, 25 minutes to the east. This 62-room resort is a hideaway of the first order, and our two-night stay there was far too short, giving us barely enough time to enjoy the peaceful beach, world-class spa, inviting walking paths and superlative restaurants. It reminded me of Schloss Elmau, my favorite hideaway in Bavaria.
Weissenhaus has served as a summer retreat since the 18th century, and its greenhouse has supplied exotic orchids to the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten in Hamburg for almost a century. In the postwar years, several of its outbuildings fell into disrepair, and the central château suffered major alterations. A Hamburg entrepreneur bought the property in 2005, and a vast sum was spent to restore and rebuild the historic estate, covering some 185 acres of gardens, ponds and forest along the Baltic. It reopened as a resort in 2014.
The attractive reception building, where we received a warm welcome, is the only completely new structure on the property. We booked one of the nine Deluxe Rooms with Terrace, which are located in the former gatehouse, dairy and bakery. A smartly dressed man took us in a golf cart with our bags to our room — guests can call for a golf cart at any time to take them somewhere on the grounds. When he opened the door to the living room, I was surprised to discover an igloo-shaped brick structure behind glass. This was the bakery’s old oven, which supplied bread to the estate. The rest of the living room was comfortably contemporary, with blond-wood floors, two white cylindrical chairs almost large enough to be daybeds, an industrial-chic side table and a striking mosaic-like mirror on the wall. In the bedroom was the little door to the oven, surrounded by a walk-in hearth, which now served as a closet. The queen bed, framed by a white padded headboard, faced the bath, clad in light-gray subway tiles, with a large walk-in shower and a single vanity. (If you want a room with a tub, be sure to request one when you make your reservation.) The wide patio, bordered by a hedge for privacy, came with two loungers.
The bakery was conveniently located to both the beach and the château, and I have no reservations about recommending a room in that building or in one of the other outbuildings. But next time I come, I plan on trying a room in the château. These also have a contemporary décor, but they have easier access to the palace’s elegant lounge, library and billiard room, as well as to its inviting bar, located in the vaulted cellar.
A convenient tunnel leads from the château to the Schlosstherme, the resort’s extraordinary spa complex, comprising two historic brick buildings connected by an atrium. In that sun-filled space is a café serving ostensibly healthful cuisine and, on the other side of a double-sided fireplace, a hushed bi-level relaxation room with numerous linen loungers. More loungers surround the swimming pool, both on the ground floor and in a gallery above. Automatic glass doors divide the pool into indoor and outdoor sections. A clothing-optional section of the spa contains a steam room, two saunas and a chalet-inspired snow room for cooling off. We had a highly relaxing massage, and I felt like a new man after a restorative hammam treatment, part of which I spent lounging in a private steam room that might have come straight from Istanbul.
We also walked down the allée leading from our room to the beach, where we had a complimentary Strandkorb reserved for the entirety of our stay. The sea was too cold for swimming, but we had a marvelous time simply relaxing there, reading and watching children build sandcastles. Hotel staffers came by at one point with a tray of fresh-fruit skewers, sunscreens and chilled, scented towels.
Our dinner at the Michelin-starred Courtier was another highlight. We dined on the rear terrace of the château on a flawless summer evening, overlooking a broad lawn and a sliver of the distant Baltic visible between the trees. From time to time, deer would trot across the lawn, backlit by the deep golden glow of the sun. My favorite dishes of the gorgeously presented meal included fillet of crunchy-skinned wild dorade in a bouillabaisse bisque with shrimp, mussels and foraged sea vegetables; perfectly tender Black Forest beef in a rich marc-based reduction with artichokes and sunchoke purée; and a dessert of chocolate crème, apricot sorbet and mousse, and toasted-almond foam.
Dining in the more casual Bootshaus was equally memorable. It had rained earlier, but the weather cleared, and we sat on the terrace overlooking the beach. I quite liked the Mediterranean- and Asian-inspired cuisine, including my delicate appetizer of shrimp, langoustine and octopus with braised oxheart tomatoes; and my strongly flavored main course of grilled turbot with artichokes, grapefruit-anchovy chutney and chorizo velouté. Because of the northerly latitude, the summer sunset lasted the entire duration of our meal, the sun lingering for more than an hour just above a bank of clouds in the distance. It dappled the mirrorlike Baltic with pink flecks, making the blue-gray sea resemble a vast, shimmering opal. I marveled at the beauty of the scene — the extraordinary quality of the light, the timeless look of the Strandkorb-dotted beach — and I no longer wondered why people come to the coast of Germany. I only wondered how soon it would be before I could find an excuse to return.
The historical elements of our stylish room; the always cheerful and helpful staff; the excellent restaurants; the charming beach; the generally gracious atmosphere.
Our room’s smallish bath; the lack of sea views from almost all accommodations.
The resort is a justly popular choice for families, but the children were never intrusive; the spa, for example, has adults-only hours.